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Sarah Lindsay

Were the European Middle Ages Racially Homogenous?

St Maurice
Reliquary statue of St. Maurice, 1525-27 (Aschaffenburg, Hofbibliothek, ms. 14, fol. 227v) | public domain | via People of Color in European Art History

Last week, we began a series on white supremacy and the middle ages. I started with the notion that the middle ages were the dark ages (here and here), since that idea makes it easy to abandon the middle ages to those who would use it to support their agenda of racial or cultural purity. As we discovered, however, the middle ages — far from being dark — play an important role in the development of western culture.

Last week’s posts sketch how the middle ages, rather than being dark and ignorant, are instead a vital period in the development of western culture. But this is not a culture that leads inevitably to white supremacy. Today and Wednesday, I develop this argument along two lines: today, I’m going to focus on the idea that Europe was racially homogenous in the middle ages; on Wednesday, I discuss the crusades and the idea that Europe was united in opposition to encroaching Islam.

Today’s post on race is not going to be comprehensive, because I’m not writing a book. I’m including links at the bottom of the post for further reading on race and the middle ages for any who are interested — and I’m going to plug the Tumblr People of Color in European Art History up here as well, since the art curated there is worth thousands of words insisting that people of color did, in fact, exist in medieval Europe.

But before we turn to the middle ages, we need to start with the Enlightenment for a very specific reason: the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is when our modern notion of race emerged, and specifically the notion of whiteness against which all other races were measured (and found lacking). Human beings undoubtedly have noticed, categorized, and assigned value to differences throughout history, but cultures frame those differences in a variety of ways. Our modern framing of race, including our valuation of European whiteness as the standard from which other races diverge, comes not from biology or some vague feature of human nature or even ancient or medieval western culture, but from Enlightenment thinkers.

The Enlightenment scholars, as they studied the past, projected their ideas about race back onto the middle ages, constructing a purely white medieval Europe. And their legacy lingers: even today, and even among specialists who should know better, the focus is almost always on white figures. You can’t get through a graduate degree with a medieval specialty without studying Thomas Aquinas or Dante — but you can (as I know from experience) get said degree without any study of medieval Jewish thinkers, or Saint Maurice, or the Islamic scholars of Sicily and Spain.

And this whitewashing of medieval history shows up even in pop culture representations — in the nearly all-white cast of Game of Thrones, for example, or the periodic grumbling about the BBC’s colorblind casting policy in shows like Merlin. Or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a very medieval epic in which the only characters of color are barely-mentioned enemies of Gondor and the West.

Given both the contents of textbooks and the representations we see on screen, plus the assumption that the dark ages must have been ignorant and bigoted, it’s no surprise that we assume that the middle ages were racially homogenous. But we should reexamine this assumption through two different lenses: first, the way that medieval people themselves thought about race; and second, the extent to which we can see homogeneity.

The first question is the most complex: how did medieval people think about race? The first thing to know is that Latin, the language of medieval scholarship, doesn’t have a term that easily equates to what we mean by “race” today. Writers could use a few terms, such as gens — a word that can be most broadly translated “people,” but that can mean “nationality” or “tribe” with connotations of biological descent.

Berry exaltation
Exaltation of the Holy Cross from Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, fol. 193r (Netherlands, c. 1411) | public domain | via People of Color in European Art History

As Christians, however, medieval European thinkers emphasized common descent from Adam. They also saw the natural environment as an important factor in creating different appearances, which means that physical appearance isn’t always tied to race or biological descent. For example, because they believed that extreme heat causes the skin to darken, medieval thinkers thought that an African who relocated to Europe would become lighter-skinned, or see lighter-skinned descendants (the opposite would also be true — fair-skinned Europeans would darken in equatorial climates). From our modern point of view, this significantly misunderstands genetics. But it’s also crucial to understand that the physical markers of modern-day race, like skin tone, were not seen by medieval people as barriers to assimilation into other cultures or as indications of character or mental ability.

Additionally, customs, language, and law were viewed by medieval people as key markers of racial or ethnic identity — social, not biological, factors. Different language groups, what we might call different racial or ethnic groups, frequently coexisted within larger political entities, such as the various princedoms of the Holy Roman Empire or the Welsh and Scots in England. This means that many medieval people would have had complex and overlapping racial and ethnic identities.

These medieval thoughts about race and ethnicity demonstrate that, in the middle ages, “race” meant something rather different than it does today. And importantly, the idea of racial purity would probably not have made sense to medieval thinkers, since for them race and ethnicity are shaped by natural and social environments — change those, and ethnic identity can also change. One example is the Viking settlement of Normandy (in modern-day France). Viking invasions along the Seine turned into settlements, and over time the Viking settlers intermarried with the original inhabitants and adopted the French language and French customs. Neither the Vikings nor the French seem to have been particularly concerned about racial purity or mixed ethnicities, despite facing the inevitable tensions that can arise when two different people groups begin to live together.

So for medieval people, race or ethnicity depended in part on descent, in part on geography, and in part on language, law and customs — a rather more complex and flexible definition of race or ethnicity than what arose in the Enlightenment.

But despite this medieval understanding of race, weren’t the vast majority of people in Europe at the time just white?

Hopefully the discussion above has shown that medieval people wouldn’t have viewed everyone in Europe as a homogenous race, given a diversity of climates, languages, laws and customs. Some homogenizing factors did, however, exist in Europe. Christianity is the crucial cultural unifier, which I will discuss more on Wednesday with the crusades. For the nobility, the laws of chivalry provided a pan-European identity,1 and the cultural explosion of the twelfth century saw certain styles of art and manuscript production (which we now call Gothic) spread across Europe and supplant more localized styles. But while these factors provided points of contact among European people groups, they did not produce a unified European ethnic identity.

Moreover, Europe had non-white inhabitants. In the Roman period, the Roman custom was to distribute armies across the empire — so North Africans served in England, Gauls in the middle east, etc. As Roman power waned, some of these soldiers undoubtedly remained where they were stationed, becoming absorbed into the population.2 Jewish settlements also existed in many cities across Europe, with Jewish people living and working alongside their Christian neighbors but holding distinct languages, laws and customs. Similarly, both Sicily and Spain had Muslim communities that often existed alongside Christian and Jewish communities.

Additionally, Europeans traded with the known world: the Silk Road took merchants to the far east, spices and fables of a Christian kingdom came from India, and artistic influence flowed between southern Europe and west Africa. Travelers like Marco Polo and John Mandeville entertained audiences with tales of their travels — real travels, although highly embellished narratives. In the realm of fiction, foreign knights served in Arthur’s fabled court: like the Saracen (Arabic) knight Palomides, a paragon of chivalry who only converts to Christianity as he dies, or the African Sir Morian, hero of his own Dutch romance.

I don’t mean to suggest that medieval Europeans valued diversity in a modern sense; that also recreates medieval Europe into our own image. But to imagine Europe in the middle ages as racially homogenous requires us to both ignore evidence to the contrary and to project Enlightenment ideas about race onto medieval people. And while medieval people were certainly quite capable of bigotry, their ideas and experiences of race certainly do not support the notion that medieval Europe is a model for white supremacy or white nationalism.

For further reading:

TEAMS (Teaching Association for Medieval Studies) put together comprehensive guide to resources on the middle ages and race here.

The Public Medievalist Special Series: Race, Racism and the Middle Ages

People of Color in European Art History, a Tumblr with many images of people of color in European art.

Robert Bartlett, “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001), 39-56. PDF here.

medieval #history #racism

  1. Note that this identity is linked to social status, uniting the European nobility while strongly distinguishing them from the lower classes — so chivalry can’t function as the foundation for a European identity for all.

  2. Historian [Mary Beard][8] endured extensive harassment on Twitter this summer for affirming the fact that black Roman soldiers served in England.